Miguel Cotto walked out of Madison Square Garden on December 1, 2012, battered, bruised and facing an uncertain future for the first time in his career.
He had been thoroughly dominated by Austin Trout, dropping a wide unanimous decision—the first Garden loss of his career—that led to speculation that the Puerto Rican icon would ride off into the sunset, calling an end to a career where he held nothing back and that would eventually lead him to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Cotto took a long time to think following the first two-fight losing streak of his career and eventually decided to roll the dice. He brought in Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, a decision he credits with resurrecting his career.
"A lot of people have said that Michael Jordan wouldn't be Jordan without [Scottie] Pippen. I think I've found my Pippen in Freddie Roach," Cotto told a small group of media at a press event Wednesday morning at Madison Square Garden.
Cotto returns to the Mecca of Boxing on Saturday night, challenging lineal and WBC middleweight champion Sergio Martinez in an attempt to make history as the first Puerto Rican fighter to win a world title in four weight divisions.
The task before him is certainly a tall one. Martinez is considered among the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, and he also has quite the chip on his shoulder, the result of months of perceived slights from the challenger and his team.
But when their paths cross on Saturday, Cotto feels that it will be his superior preparation that will make the difference.
"At the end of the road, it's just Sergio and Miguel in the ring," Cotto said.
"The guy who comes in better shape, in the best condition, the guy who trusts in his work and his skills is going to win the fight. And that guy is going to be Miguel Cotto."
Cotto returned to the ring in October—fighting under Roach's tutelage for the first time—and spectacularly stopped Delvin Rodriguez in a comeback fight.
The Puerto Rican legend credits Roach with helping him to refine his game and make adjustments as he enters the latter stages of his career.
But Cotto has struggled in the past with slick, fast southpaws, something that Roach—who has trained one such fighter to beat Cotto in the past—is uniquely qualified to help fix.
"Definitely. What I told Manny [Pacquiao] to do to him [Cotto] is what I told Miguel not to do for this one," Roach responded when asked if training to fight Cotto has helped him prepare for Martinez.
"The biggest thing was staying on the ropes too long. If he does go to the ropes, if he seems something, it will be quick. He won’t stay on the ropes for a long time."
Cotto is effusive in his praise for Roach, and the two men share a clear rapport with one another.
Both commented on the success of their second training camp together, and Cotto was confident that the lessons learned there will separate him from previous Martinez opponents.
"I'm not [Martin] Murray. I'm not any of the fighters that were mentioned before. He's fighting Miguel Cotto this time," he said.
"We did our work. We're worried about doing our job and doing the best we can."
Roach is an unabashed advocate for his fighters. He sometimes has a tendency to ruffle some feathers on the other side, but he's not changing anytime soon.
Hurt feelings are not something he worries about or traffics in even as the Martinez camp has clearly seemed agitated by some of his recent comments.
Roach has genuine confidence in his guys, something he transfers to them, and he has no problem saying it even if some people don't like it.
"He's reckless. He just runs wherever he wants," Roach said about Martinez's style on Wednesday.
"He's [Martinez] a great athlete. His athleticism has taken him a long way. But he's going against a fighter who's been fighting his whole life. I think he's just in over his head for this one."
Cotto is the ultimate professional. He takes the sport very seriously, and he's proven quite good at it, capturing world championships from 140 to 154 pounds.
A native of Puerto Rico, he inevitably draws comparisons to some of the greats produced by the island in the past. But on Saturday night, he has the opportunity to do something that none of them—and there have been plenty—have ever done before: become a four-weight champion.
But through it all, he remains humble and gracious.
"I grew up listening and hearing things about [Wilfredo] Gomez, [Wilfred] Benitez, a lot of great Puerto Rican champions," Cotto said. "And then when I started boxing, [Felix] Trinidad was our main boxer. Being able to be on their side of boxing conversations makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable, but never makes me feel more than them."
The possibility exists for it to be a banner weekend for Puerto Rico—and Puerto Rican boxing in particular. Cotto plans to be a big part of it.
"I think everyone is looking forward to the fight. We'll have the weigh-in on Friday, Saturday is the big fight. Puerto Rico will have a new champion," he said.
"And then on Sunday, we'll have Tito Trinidad, one of the greatest fighters that we've had, going into the Hall of Fame. So, yeah, I think Puerto Rico is going to enjoy a great weekend."
For Cotto to keep up his end of that bargain, he'll need to be at his absolute best.
He'll need to execute his game plan flawlessly and not give Martinez any avenues to exploit his physical and stylistic advantages.
Most importantly, he'll need to fight smart and disciplined, something Roach feels will be the key to the fight and not something that should present any problems.
“Yes. Cutting the ring off, controlling the ring, again, keeping himself in good positions, not putting yourself on the ropes. It's very important, and it's something we worked a lot on," Roach said.
"He's [Cotto] a great student. He's one of the most disciplined fighters I've ever trained."
Cotto will enter the ring on Saturday night as the underdog despite fighting in what amounts to a home Game 7 in a playoff series.
The prevailing wisdom, for whatever that's worth, seems to be that if Martinez is at or near 100 percent—no guarantee—he should be able to handle Cotto with ease.
That's not meant as a knock, but styles make fights, and Martinez's speed and footwork could give Cotto a lot of trouble if they're up to snuff.
The last part of that sentence is key.
Martinez has had a grueling go of it these last couple of years—not losing a fight, but suffering year-ending injuries to his right knee in his last two bouts.
Roach, who has a history with Martinez, feels that one fight in particular took it all out of him.
"Those injuries might show up in the fight. I think he left a lot of his fight in the ring when he fought [Julio Cesar] Chavez [Jr.]," said Roach.
"He tried to knock Chavez out so badly for 11 rounds. He won every round but tried so hard to knock him out and couldn't do it and almost got knocked out in the last round himself. The wear and tear of that fight I think just ruined him. I think that was his last hurrah."
That remains to be seen.
Cotto, for his part, says he's not worried about past opponents or grudges. He's just there to take care of business.
"One thing that Sergio has to be concerned with is, he's not going to face Kelly Pavlik, he's not going to face Paul Williams. It's Miguel Cotto who is going to be in front of him," he said.
"I'm not here to hate anybody. I'm here just to make my work. Try to do my best in every opportunity I have. If he has any problem with Miguel Cotto, I don't know the reason, but I don't have any problem with nobody."
Kevin McRae is a featured boxing columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @McRaeBoxing. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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